Visualizing Maternal Love and Desperation: 8 Shots from Bong Joon-ho's "Mother" (2009)

In the Realm of the Lenses

In the previous articles we discussed the cinematography of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Today we will be looking at the first collaboration between director Bong and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, 2009’s Mother. The film tells the story of a mother who tries to prove her son’s innocence after he is arrested for murder. This is the first of two articles that will take a look at some of the shots from the film and discuss how the cinematography in these shots helps serve the film’s ideas. In this first part I will be going over various shots from the first half of the film. Some spoilers will be necessary to discuss the shots so I highly recommend you watch the film before reading on if you have not seen it already.

Note: The timestamps included are the approximate starting times of the shots or scenes from the Blu-ray release.

Opening Shot (00:01:16)

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The opening shot of the film introduces us to Mother (we do not learn her name in the film). The camera starts on an extreme wide shot of Mother in a field and slowly moves closer as she walks towards the camera, stops, and begins to dance. At one point she covers her face in anguish before resuming her dancing. The long take stays on Mother and the emphasis is on her movement rather than that of the camera. This is our first look at the protagonist of the film and the shot lasts over two minutes. Despite the lengthy duration of the shot, not much information is given to the audience. We don’t know the character’s name, who she is, why she is dancing in this field, or the reason for her pain. Mother is a film full of mysteries and its opening shot is no different. This long opening take prepares the audience for a film where hidden information will be revealed slowly.

Do-joon stumbles home (00:19:24)

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In this scene, Do-joon drunkenly stumbles home from a bar and follows Moon Ah-jung to an abandoned building. This scene is crucial to the rest of the film as it is our first look at Do-joon and Ah-jung on the night Ah-jung was murdered. Importantly, the scene includes shots from Do-joon’s POV as he follows Ah-jung. These voyeuristic shots following Ah-jung from behind are not only unsettling but also reminders that we are seeing these events from Do-joon’s perspective. We know from earlier in the film that Do-joon’s memory and awareness are shaky. Later in the film he will have trouble recalling the events of this night as well.

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One shot in particular (00:20:05) starts over Do-joon’s shoulder as he approaches a pitch-black corridor that Ah-jung has disappeared into. As he comes to a stop, the camera keeps moving past him toward the darkness. This shot has a mysterious and ominous feeling as the camera moves in for a closer look (despite Do-joon's hesitation) but cannot see anything due to it being completely dark. Later in the film when the truth of these events is revealed, we will revisit this scene from a different character’s perspective. The dark corridor will no longer be completely dark and we will see what really happened. But at this point in the film we meant to share Do-joon’s confusion and missing information.

Mother shows up at Ah-jung’s funeral (00:38:12)

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Mother brings the golf club to the police (00:54:43)

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These two scenes use composition and color to emphasize how Mother lacks the support of the rest of the community in her quest to prove Do-joon’s innocence. In the first scene she uninvitedly shows up at Ah-jung’s funeral and when confronted by the family, insists that Do-joon did not commit the murder. The wide shot places her in the center of the frame, surrounded by the funeral-goers. Everyone else is dressed in black mourning attire but Mother is dressed in red. She stands out visually and looks out of place, accentuating the awkward situation. The rest of the community, especially Ah-jung’s family, does not believe that Do-joon is innocent. Even the police want to believe that the case is closed. When Mother brings a golf club that she is certain is important evidence to the police station, she also sticks out in the frame. Another wide shot again centers and surrounds her with others who doubt her. Once more her red clothing separates her from her environment, this time the cool blue tones of the police station instead of the blacks of the funeral service. The unhelpful police barely humor her interest in continuing the search for Ah-jung’s murderer.

Mother walks to Jin-tae’s home (00:46:22)

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Mother meets with the lawyer at a karaoke bar (01:00:09)

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While the previous shots placed Mother in group compositions to show her separation from the rest of the community, these shots show Mother alone in her surroundings to do the same. The first is an extreme wide shot of Mother walking to Jin-tae’s home to search for evidence. She is a tiny, sole human figure in the landscape dominated by the mist-covered hills in the background. The composition of the frame uses this juxtaposition in size to illustrate the monumental task that Mother has chosen to take on herself. No one else in the community loves her son as she does or believes in his innocence enough to go to the same lengths to defend him.

Mother later meets up with an expensive lawyer that she has been trying to persuade to take on Do-joon’s case. The lawyer, however, seems more concerned with drinking and partying than with Do-joon’s predicament. When Mother visits him in a private karaoke room, the lawyer and his companions are framed together in a balanced group shot that is cut with a shot of Mother drinking alone in the bottom corner of the frame. She has sought help from the community, police, and the lawyer but found none. Through the framing we feel Mother’s isolation and desperation, and we understand when she will choose to take matters into her own hands in the second half of the film.

As a side note, we saw similar shots and compositions in Bong Joon-ho’s later film Parasite which was discussed in previous articles. That film, also shot by cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, made use of extreme wide shots and generous headroom to depict the Kim family as insignificant figures dominated and oppressed by the forces surrounding them.

Screencaps from Mother Blu-ray

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